As a petty officer second class and long-time member of the U.S. Naval Institute, I received an invitation in spring 1969 to an Institute-sponsored lecture held at the U.S. Naval Academy. The speaker was to be retired Japanese General Minoru Genda, who had served with distinction as chief of staff of the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force and then as a member of the upper house of the Japanese Diet.
These achievements aside, Genda also had served in the Imperial Japanese Navy and played a key role in planning the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. It seemed to be an excellent opportunity to hear from an important historical figure in person. Little did any attendees know we would be unwittingly stepping into a cauldron of controversy that raged on both sides of the Pacific.
Even though the war had been over for nearly a quarter-century, several people in this country saw the passage of time as insufficient to make amends for Genda’s involvement in the event that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had promised would forever be remembered “in infamy.”
'A Flurry of Denunciations'
Following the announcement of the lecture came a flurry of denunciations. A veteran of the Pearl Harbor attack sent a telegram to the Academy protesting the visit, and in a letter to the editor of the Annapolis Evening Capital newspaper, a reader compared Genda to convicted Nazi Holocaust architects Heinrich Himmler and Adolf Eichmann, adding that “maybe a little lasting hate for our so-called ‘ex-enemies’ . . . would do us all some good.” The Pacific Stars and Stripes reported that the Naval Institute told the State Department that Genda had “received a number of threatening phone calls and letters.”
Straddling the usually divisive aisle in Congress, Representative Samuel Crooks (D-MA) told an audience that he was “appalled, shocked, angered, and insulted,” while Representative William Harsha (R-OH) asked Secretary of the Navy John Chafee to “remedy the situation” and wondered if the Naval Institute might next invite “the Soviet officer who planned the Berlin blockade . . . or the North Korean officer who planned and executed the attack on . . . the USS Pueblo [AGER-2].”
But not all Americans shared these reactions. Rhode Island State Senator Erich Taylor called Genda “a distinguished and outspoken friend of the United States” and noted that the general had been awarded the U.S. Legion of Merit by our own Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1962. The United Veterans Council, speaking for the American Legion, the VFW, and other veterans’ organizations, welcomed the general and extended to him “our best wishes for a successful and fruitful visit.”
Words from a 'Former Enemy'
The night of the event, Mitscher Hall was packed, later reported to have been jammed with “over 750 midshipmen, naval officers, retired officers, and members of the Naval Institute.” An air of excitement filled the room as this former enemy (and current ally) began speaking.
I always had been in awe of World War II veterans, but until that event, all encounters had been with Americans. It was an experience repeated many years later, when I met a (North) Vietnamese colonel at an event (also sponsored by the Naval Institute). After exchanging knowing looks, I said to the colonel, “I once visited your country.”
But this was different. General Genda had indeed been our nation’s enemy, but it had been before many in the audience were even born. I felt no animosity—just a kind of curiosity and a sense that this was somehow important, but not fully understanding why. Subsequent newspaper accounts reported that “several midshipmen described Genda’s visit as ‘beneficial,’ and the audience generally thought highly of him.”
What had no doubt escaped the attention of several in the audience—but had really captured the media’s—was what General Genda said about the U.S. atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He said he felt no bitterness toward the United States for those bombings. “If we had had the atomic bomb in 1945, we would have dropped it on you,” he said matter-of-factly.
That comment, grouped with others he made in the days following as he continued his lecture tour, set off a political firestorm in Japan. When informed of Genda’s remarks relating to the atomic bombs, Prime Minister Eisaku Sato told Japanese lawmakers that Genda’s remarks were “extremely improper,” and that he would “sternly reprimand” the general. Both men were members of the Liberal Democratic Party, and both held leadership positions in the coalition government. Genda’s remarks had infuriated the opposition parties and were being sharply and emotionally criticized. To make matters worse, Genda had subsequently added that he believed U.S. nuclear weapons then kept on Okinawa were necessary for the maintenance of peace in the Far East. Japanese leftists, who wanted the United States to return Okinawa to Japan without nuclear weapons, were outraged.
Genda's Remarks Play Poorly at Home
Genda ultimately cut his visit short and returned to Japan, stating that his presence was needed to participate in a defense debate back home. After meeting with Sato, he resigned his post as chief of the Defense Policy Board. Although he cited “personal reasons” for the resignation, it was clear to most that his candid remarks in the United States were the real reason for his departure.
The Naval Institute’s arrangement of General Genda’s visit was an attempt to take advantage of the new Cold War alliance system that had made allies out of former enemies and opened the door to acquiring lessons learned from a former antagonist. It ended by costing Genda his job—something that likely did not trouble those who had vehemently opposed his visit in the first place. But their understandable resentment of an act of aggression that had cost many American lives was—in the eyes of this former petty officer now grown old—misguided in one important sense.
Although the Naval Institute was variously (and mistakenly) described in the newspapers at the time as “a club consisting of retired naval officers only” and “a private fraternity of naval persons,” it was—and always has been—first and foremost an open forum, where topics and ideas can be discussed for the betterment of the nation and its sea services. Pearl Harbor was indeed infamous in the context of its time, and the sacrifice of American lives should never be minimized, but in the realities of an ever-changing world, enemies can indeed become friends (and the opposite can certainly be true as well). Genda came to the United States recognizing that he was the vanquished foe and willing to speak about both the past and the present in pragmatic terms that were refreshingly candid.
Not Politically Correct
When viewed through a 21st-century lens, Genda’s remarks were not politically correct back in his own country, and the Naval Institute’s willingness to open its forum to him contrasts sharply with those individuals in our day who oppose bringing controversial speakers to college campuses for fear that the students may be harmed by being exposed to ideas outside their comfort zone.
Those Americans who died at Pearl Harbor and in the long and bitter struggle that ensued did so for a variety of important reasons, not least of which was the preservation of our democracy and of the free speech that is one of its hallmarks. Those Americans who opposed Genda’s coming here to speak were victims of their own myopia, which allowed them to see the sacrifice but not the reasons behind it.
A full appreciation of what had occurred was yet to come to me, but the fact that at the time I took the event for granted—that it had not even occurred to me it might somehow be wrong to listen to a former enemy—was evidence that even then I understood the basics of what made this nation special. In truth, people don the uniform for a variety of reasons. But above all, many of them clearly understand that this nation—especially its ability to have an open forum—is worth defending.